One of a series of conversations with ex-cadets from Royal Military College, as they reflect on their time at the college, their sporting endeavours and what they've been up to since graduation.
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
It does seem strange, Leah West Sherriff admits.
“I actually have to get a higher security clearance for a legal job than I ever had in the military,” said Sherriff, the former Royal Military College cadet now in her third year of studying law at University of Toronto.
Her next opportunity will be working with one of Canada’s senior national security judges in Ottawa, on top-secret cases involving the intelligence community. “I’m really excited and intrigued by what I’ll get exposed to,” said Sherriff, who two summers ago worked in the War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Unit of the Department of Justice.
It is perhaps fitting for a woman who long aspired to attend RMC that her post-military career not take her too far away from matters of national security. Growing up near Erin, Ont., in the Brampton-Caledon region, Sherriff heard her mother talk about military college from the time she was a girl.
“My mother is American,” Sherriff said, “and she was accepted to the first class of women to the Air Force Academy in the U.S. but didn’t attend, and it was one of her big regrets, so it was something that she always talked to me about.
“It was something that I, from the age of 10, was working towards.”
As a dual citizen, Sherriff said she considered applying to military academies in both the U.S. and Canada. “The year that I was doing the applications was 2001, so I decided to stay at home and go to RMC.”
There likely weren’t many students at Mayfield Secondary School in Caledon considering military college as an academic option. Mayfield is known more as a performing arts institution, and it made sense that Sherriff be there since, in her youth, she was a dancer. “Jazz, tap, ballet,” she said. “I did it all.”
Then something remarkable happened. “In the middle of high school I grew six inches in just over a year, which pretty well put an end to that.” It was disappointing, Sherriff recalled. “My parents made the call for me, because I would never have given it up, but it allowed me to get involved in sports more heavily, which I don’t regret at all.”
What Sherriff may have lost in the dance studio, she gained in the eyes of coaches. At school, she played volleyball and basketball, a little rugby and she even rowed for a while. She also was playing club basketball in Mississauga and club volleyball in Brampton.
Part of the double-cohort year in Ontario high schools, Sherriff was among the first of the four-year graduates. She headed to college militaire royal in St-Jean, Que., for a prep year before heading to RMC. The language training she received there was invaluable, she says, and she learned a little bit about herself while she was there, too.
“The very first impression I had was meeting people from different areas of Canada, who had grown up very differently from me,” Sherriff said. “It really opened my eyes to (the fact that) we’re all Canadians, but there’s a big difference between growing up in the GTA, and growing up in Newfoundland or growing up in the Gaspesie or Cape Breton.
“That was the first thing that really hit me: the people.”
Arriving at RMC is like landing on another planet for many first-year cadets, but Sherriff said she didn’t find it that difficult to adapt to the college routine. "I was really ready," she said. “I’d known for so long what I wanted to do, by the time I was in Grade 12, I was definitely ready to be at RMC.
“I’d led a pretty regimented lifestyle in high school, simply because of all the activities I was in, and I’d known for so long what I wanted to do, so that gave me an edge in understanding how to polish boots and do my uniform and make a bed and all those type of things. I actually appreciated the challenge more than finding it difficult.”
A politics major who graduated in 2007 with a minor in history, Sherriff joined the volleyball team. In her first year the Paladins were in the Ontario college league. “We went to the playoffs and won our fair share of games.” The next year, however, the team joined Ontario University Athletics, and for the next three years the team didn’t win a single game.
“(I was) constantly questioning the future of our sport at RMC because of that, which was hard,” she said. “It was a lot of pressure on us who stayed on the team throughout; it was hard to be motivated to have the kind of commitment that you need to have to play varsity sports in the OUA, knowing that there’s a very good chance that you won’t win a game. You try to find individual goals to carry you through all of that, because the team goals were a little bit far-reaching.”
Sherriff has high praise for Carolyn Welden, the women’s volleyball coach, for her ability to understand the team’s capacity to develop with the kind of athletes who were coming through the door at RMC.
“The trajectory of the team over her 10 years shows that she had that dedication, and how much effort she put into bringing in volleyball players to RMC who were both good cadets and good athletes. That took a long time and she did that, which was, I can imagine, very challenging, because she had to deal with the losses far longer than any of us did, since we graduated after four years.”
Sherriff played one year of varsity volleyball at U of T, on a team that traditionally has been successful, but being on a winning team never made her regret the time she spent on a losing one. “I look back at both of my experiences and I don’t remember the win-loss record,” she said.
“The thing that I remember most about my time at RMC is I learned a lot about myself as a leader. I was a captain in my final year and I was a leader on the floor for many years, and trying to lead through that kind of disappointment is hard. I got it wrong a lot of the time, but I think I started to get it right at the end.
“The bonds that you make with your teammates never go away. Many of us continued to play together on the CISM teams and the skills you get just from being a varsity athlete, especially a varsity athlete at RMC, are never wasted. The time management, the dedication, the personal physical fitness component, trying to balance everything—I still use those skills today.”
Though she may not have won much with the volleyball team—or the varsity basketball team, with which she dressed for three games one year when injuries depleted that team’s roster—Sherriff did end her time at the college with two of its most prestigious awards: the Sword of Honour and the Canadian Defence Academy Profession of Arms Award. The first is presented to the graduating cadet who best combines high standards of proficiency in each of the four components of the RMC program; the second for consistently demonstrating integrity, courage, academic achievement, fitness, loyalty, comradeship and commitment.
“I graduated with a really accomplished class of cadets,” Sherriff said, “and for the college to think that highly of me was a huge honour. I can think of so many of my peers who were amazing and are still amazing and are still serving. The fact that it was me was a big surprise.”
Some women who preceded Sherriff to RMC remain bitter to this day over the derision they felt from their male classmates. As you talk to her, Sherriff gives no sense that she ever felt that way. “There was still a disparity in the number of women who filled the senior-most roles at the college in my time,” she said, “and I know that caused some friction for us.
“I guess I benefitted from being six feet tall but for the most part I just used to joke that going to RMC was like going to school with a 900-man hockey team. I found that we tended to get used to the kind of locker-room talk that maybe you wouldn’t find in other universities … but in terms of disadvantaged, and was it something that I had to brace myself for on a daily basis? Not at all.”
From RMC, Sherriff went directly to her regiment, the Royal Canadian Dragoons, at Petawawa, where she was a troop leader for two years. A volleyball connection got her her next job—“which I don’t think many people in the military can say”—when she went to work for Gen. J.C. Collin as his aide de camp. “He was the patron of volleyball in the Canadian Forces and I’d met him at a tournament,” Sherriff recalled. “He needed a new aide and he voluntold me for the position.”
After close to a year on Collin’s staff in Toronto, Sherriff was posted to Afghanistan as a junior operations officer for Task Force Kandahar. “It was very challenging, very rewarding,” she said.
“I learned a lot about myself in that tour. I made a lot of mistakes and was challenged in ways I never thought possible. There are things from that tour that will stick with me forever.”
Foremost among them, she said, were the ramp ceremonies.
“We lost both Americans and Canadians who were under my command at the time,” she said. “I’d lost friends, soldiers and mentors on other tours, and though I didn’t lose anyone I was personally close to on that tour, when you have an engagement or involvement where people lose their lives …”
Sherriff paused to collect her thoughts.
“Other than the people immediately on the ground, I was the first one to know and I was responsible for briefing the commanding officers on what exactly had happened,” she said.
“Because of the role that I had, I wasn’t on the ground and they weren’t my buddies that I’d lost, so I guess I was thinking of it in terms of what my team was doing, and what maybe we could we have done—what assets could we have pushed? Could we have got medevac there sooner? That kind of thing is what I was always left thinking about. I know that may be a little bit self-centred, but in the moment you acknowledge the loss but you can’t dwell on it.”
Sherriff had been a funeral party commander for two soldiers, one of whom had been one of her soldiers prior to deploying. “In that sense I thought a lot more about the individuals and the families, because you’re there with them as they’re grieving. The way you think about the loss is entirely different when you’re actually overseas.”
Clearly, it remains a powerful memory. “It’s not something I think about often, and I have the luxury of no longer being in uniform.”
From Kandahar, Sherriff was posted the Combat Training Centre Headquarters in Gagetown, N.B., where she wore two hats, managing the financial component of reservist training and developing the training calendar for the regular Army. “We have to forecast how many people we want to train in each trade at each level every year, and all of the money, equipment and personnel that’s tied to that.
“It’s definitely something that has to be done and it has to be done diligently, especially the financial aspect of it, because it was during the major cuts that happened a few years ago,” she said, “(but) it’s a desk job, and after being in a combat arms unit, it’s hard to swallow.”
Sherriff retired from the Forces in 2012.
She continued to play volleyball, including internationally on CISM teams, before a knee injury forced her to abandon that. She switched to marathon running, ran the Boston Marathon in 2012 and joined a sub-elite club in Toronto, where she does some coaching. This year, Sherriff plans to run marathons in Pittsburgh and New York.
Sherriff was asked to reflect on her time at RMC from the perspective of someone who was so eager to attend.
“I can’t imagine having gone to school anywhere else,” she said. “It’s just such a unique experience. It entirely shapes you. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t gone there, and I especially wouldn’t trade the friends that I made at the college for anyone.”